Bee protections could put crops at risk, farmers say

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Sept. 2, 2015 - Pesticide restrictions that the Obama administration has proposed to protect bees go further than necessary and will put crops at risk, farm groups say. 

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to bar the application of pesticides that are toxic to bees when crops are in bloom and bees are nearby for contract pollination services.

The agency also is working with state and tribal agencies to develop and implement their own pollinator protection plans that include regionally targeted measures. The agency is separately reviewing the impact of a specific group of pesticides, neonicotinoids, on pollinators.

In comments filed with EPA, the U.S. Apple Association called the ban on pesticide applications when crops are blooming a “one-size-fits-all” approach that “does not allow growers the flexibility for use of individual, effective product.” Apple growers already work with beekeepers to ensure that their bees are protected, the group said

Lets Talk Food

The American Farm Bureau Federation is calling on the agency to drop the proposals and work with farmers, beekeepers and other stakeholders to propose an alternative.

“AFBF recognizes that the agency has a responsibility to evaluate the impact of pesticides on managed honey bees. Unfortunately, the proposal under consideration has generated a large number of questions among producers and appears to be deficient in a number of important respects,” the Farm Bureau said in its comments.

Del Monte Fresh Produce told EPA that says that restrictions on chemical applications during melon blooms would unnecessarily expose the crops to pest damage. Citing the company's experience in Arizona, Del Monte said that existing contracts with beekeepers include adequate protections for the bees while still allowing for limited usage of pesticides. 

California Citrus Mutual represents citrus growers, who don't use pollination services. The group said the EPA plan was “giving beekeepers a pass and potentially doing harm” to farmers. 

Other groups raising concerns include the National Cotton Council and the American Soybean Association, which said soybean fields are sometimes located next to crops that are being pollinated through contract services.

The proposed pesticide restrictions were included in a national strategy that the White House unveiled in May to restore pollinator populations. The public comment period closed Aug. 28. The strategy also includes added research funding and measures to increase and improve pollinator habitat. Beekeepers reported losing about 40 percent of honey bee colonies in 2014. 

There also is concern about a steep decline in populations of monarch butterflies. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council says the pesticide restrictions are long overdue but don't go far enough. The group called on the agency to take a number of additional steps, including starting cancellation proceedings for all neonicotinoid products, beginning with those that can easily be replaced with safer alternatives. 

In addition, EPA should kill a 48-hour notification exemption for all outdoor uses of pesticides that are toxic to bees, and the agency should work with the Agriculture Department to cancel the use of pesticides to treat seeds, NRDC said. 

EPA is getting some mixed reaction from beekeepers. 

Mark Berninghausen, president of the Empire State Honey Producers Association in New York, called the EPA plan “an important first step in recognizing the potentially harmful impact” of pesticides to pollinators.

But the California State Beekeepers Association said the restrictions would disrupt pollination services and that some of the chemicals EPA is seeking to restrict can be used safely around bees. The group also said EPA shouldn't make a distinction between bees that are under contract and ones that are not.  

A beekeeper in Arizona, Larry White, who provides contract pollination services for almonds, melons and other crops, said the restrictions could unintentionally force farmers to reduce their plantings. 

The Farm Bureau's biggest complaint is that it says EPA is raising the standard it normally uses in evaluating whether a pesticide poses a risk to the environment. The agency is adopting a “precautionary principle view,” instead of following its normal process of weighing the risks of a pesticide against the potential benefits. 

The shift “undermines the agency's own vigorous, scientific program of analyzing chemicals, their potential impacts and the exposure scenarios likely to occur under real-world conditions, and weighing those against the benefits of the products when used in carefully prescribed conditions,” the Farm Bureau said. 

CropLife America, which represents the pesticide manufacturers, said the plan is “based on a one-size-fits-all approach that is arbitrary and inflexible, and does not follow EPA's own procedures for risk-based decision making.”

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